Center for Strategic Communication

Libyans celebrate the end of the Gadhafi regime in Benghazi, October 2011. After the attack on the U.S. consulate, these same Libyans could be key for the CIA’s counterterrorism efforts. Photo: Flickr/Magherebia

President Obama told the truth when he said there would be no U.S. ground troops in Libya after last year’s war to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He just left out a lot of context — like how eastern Libya, the site of the deadly September 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, would become a major staging ground for American contractors and intelligence operatives as they try to take the measure of the local Islamist militants.

The future of that effort is now in question after an attack that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador and two former Navy SEALs. The assault has led Americans to vacate Benghazi for their safety, even though various militant groups continue their operations. It’s a disaster for U.S. intelligence efforts in the region, especially since the attack has made brutally clear how real the jihadi threat in eastern Libya remains.

But there may be the smallest of silver linings to this black cloud, if American operatives are able to capitalize on it. The aftermath of the attack shows widespread displeasure with Benghazi’s jihadist groups, with thousands marching in protest. That’s an opportunity the CIA could use to rebuild its intelligence gathering.

The New York Times reports that one of the compounds in the lightly-secured Benghazi consulate was a CIA safe house. From there, intelligence personnel and contractors — like the ex-Navy SEAL Glen Doherty, who died in the attack — attempted to locate and destroy the thousands of rockets and missiles that went missing during the war. They also attempted to gather information on the constellation of extremist militias that have emerged after the downfall of Gadhafi.

Now they may not. While U.S. surveillance drones dot the skies over Libya, what remains of the intelligence operation below may have already departed Benghazi, understandably fearing for its safety. An anonymous U.S. official described it to the Times as a “catastrophic intelligence loss” that leaves the U.S. with “our eyes poked out.” While other officials dispute that characterization, the first account administration officials provided of the incident mentioned that remaining U.S. personnel in eastern Libya had been extracted.

Some important background: Obama’s decision to support the Libyan revolution had an unintended consequence for the CIA. Behind the scenes, it had collaborated with Gadhafi’s brutal intelligence apparatus to track (and occasionally torture) suspected Libyan terrorists. Now, the Gadhafi intelligence apparatus was gone, leaving the CIA without its proxy eyes and ears, and a weak interim government of unproven ability operated in its place.

And eastern Libya is not a place to be without eyes and ears. While the Arab Spring may have undermined one of al-Qaida’s central rationales for existing — waging war to overthrow U.S.-backed dictators — but opportunities for related or sympathetic jihadi groups to fill the vacuums left by overthrown regimes have expanded. That’s on stark display in eastern Libya. A massive intelligence trove captured from al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007 revealed that the city of Derna, with a population of 100,000, sent 52 fighters to wage jihad in Iraq, more than the Saudi capitol of Riyadh, a city of four million. As militia groups coalesced in post-Gadhafi Libya, alliances shifted and new organizations moved in, word of a growing extremist threat in the east even broke through in major media. Focal point: Derna.

Whatever intelligence network the CIA built on the ground in eastern Libya failed it two weeks ago in Benghazi. And whether or not there were specific warnings of the 9/11 anniversary attack, the State Department in the spring hired a British security firm to help protect the consulate. And the diary of the slain U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, revealed that he was worried about “a rise in Islamic extremism and al Qaida’s growing presence in Libya,” CNN reported.

But there’s an opportunity in the wake of the attack to rebuild a network of Libyan informants. Tens of thousands of Libyans took to the streets this weekend to protest the extremist militia groups. Some of them even “stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line Islamist militia that has been linked to the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi,” the Times reported. It’s a reminder of a phenomenon that was on display in 2006 in Iraq: the more a local population comes to know an al-Qaida-aligned organization, and the austere agenda it plans to impose, the more it rejects the extremists. Jihadists are often better at planning terrorist attacks than they are at holding territory.

That means there are thousands of people in Libya who may see their interests aligning with the CIA’s. That’s an opportunity that might redeem some of the sacrifice of the four Americans slain in Benghazi — if the CIA sticks around to exploit it.